Figuring Out How Fit You Really Are

By Howard Schneider
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The holidays are over. The new year has begun. So let the nagging begin, right?

Nah, let's skip it. There's too much of that coming from the folks who want you to give them money. Signing up for a new exercise program may lower the level of guilt, but that alone won't get the work done. Instead, I asked a few local trainers to offer simple tests you can do at home or on the way to work to check your strength, aerobic fitness, balance and all the other stuff we want to keep intact. Some are pretty basic. Others are a bit more challenging.

What you do with the results is up to you. There'll be no nagging here.

Aerobic capacity: There are lots of ways to evaluate fitness, but one of the most fundamental is to look at your ability to raise your heart rate, increase your breathing and use more oxygen to allow the muscles to do more work. Actual measurement requires access to the right equipment (see sidebar), but there are plenty of ways to get a rough idea of where things stand.

Such as walking up from your Metro stop. Lance Breger, head private trainer at District-based Mint Fitness, says that when you are looking up from the bottom of your station (particularly those deeper ones, such as Rosslyn or Wheaton or Woodley Park), go ahead and make the climb. If your stop has a staircase, take it. Otherwise, walk up the escalator. Check your breathing at the end. If you can speak in reasonable sentences without gasping for air, then you're in decent shape. If you have to make stops along the way or are breathless by the time you reach the top, then think about regular cardio training (such as taking the stairs every day?).

If you aren't a subway rider, Mary Layne, owner of LifeStages Fitness in Northern Virginia, suggests a one-mile run or jog. For her younger clients, Layne would want them to cover the distance in maybe 13 minutes, or roughly 4.5 mph; if you are older, strive for a brisk walking pace of 3.5 mph, or about 17 minutes per mile.

Finally, Kenn Kihiu, who trains out of the Sport & Health chain's Rio facility in Gaithersburg, offers this simple test for lung function (which also can serve as a basic deep breathing exercise). Good breath control figures into many types of exercise, and a slow controlled breath can be healthy and meditative in its own right. So get a full belly of air and see if you can perform a steady 30-second exhale. If not, try to work up to it: You'll find the practice itself relaxing.

Strength: Upper body, lower body, back, abs: where to begin? Kihiu offers a simple (but challenging) test and exercise rolled into one: the wall squat. With your back against a wall and your feet shoulder-width apart, slide down and move your feet out until your knees are at a 90-degree angle, with the hips parallel to the floor. If you can hold the pose for a minute, Kihiu says, it is a good measure of lower-body strength and a strong indication that you'll avoid the routine pulls and strains that an unfit person can suffer from such simple motions as standing up or bending over. If you fall short, you can use the pose as an exercise to try to build strength. If needed, use a table or chair for support while moving into or out of position. Be extra careful if you have weak or problem knees.

For the upper body and for general core strength, Breger says to pay attention to some basic, everyday functions: Can you get your overhead bag into the compartment on the airplane without help? Can you get the grocery bags into the house and up the steps without a rest? Can you lean over the sink to shave or wash your face without a pain in your back? Can you get out of bed without rolling to one side and pushing up with your hands? (We hope you're saying yes.)

If you're in pretty good shape and looking for a goal, try the bench press, a classic measure of strength, Layne says: If men can press their body weight and if women can press half their body weight, that's a sign of good conditioning.

Flexibility: Can you touch your toes? Can you wash your back? Enough said.

Balance: Balance becomes increasingly important as we age. Falls and fractures are serious injuries for the elderly. Poor balance can stem from neurological and other problems, but it can also be a sign of poor muscle control and inadequate strength.

Layne recommends playing stork: Stand on one foot for half a minute, then switch sides. If you think you are going to have trouble, do the test near a wall.

Successful? Now try it with your eyes closed. Layne notes the importance of visual cues in helping us stay upright, and without that orientation it is easy to start wobbling or even make yourself a bit nauseated from the disorientation.

Breger takes us back on the Metro for a bit of subway surfing: See how much of the ride you can navigate without holding a handrail. It is probably best not to do this in a rush-hour crowd, and do keep a hand ready to grab a seat back if needed. But this is a fun test of reflexes and balance.

Now that you have the tools to test yourself, don't be afraid to give them a try. The truth is out there. What you do with it is up to you.

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